Somewhere around the beginning of April, shortly before I received the first of my vaccine doses, I woke up at that penumbral, just-after-dawn hour where no one is awake in the real world, and barely anyone is awake in my online world except the English — too early to be awake, but too late to comfortably go back to bed, in other words. Had this happened before March 2020, when I was still living at my old apartment in Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill neighborhood, most likely I would’ve pulled on my pants, grabbed a book, and walked two blocks to the local diner, where I would’ve made my way through an omelet, home fries, and two cups of terrible coffee that would’ve shortly made its way through me. This was about my favorite thing to do, back when it was possible, but instead it was April 2021, and I was now living in a different neighborhood, and even if I hadn’t been the diner had only remained open for takeout.
Instead, I waited until around 7 a.m., after I’d been up for nearly two hours, and went to my local coffee shop, where I purchased a cold brew and a pastry. The coffee shop had recently installed some outdoor seating, and after paying, it occurred to me that I could sit down and eat my food, which I had done only a handful of times during the pandemic. The sidewalks were mostly bare. The only people I saw made their way to the subway. I ate my piece of artisanal toast, and I drank my coffee, and I looked at my phone, and when I was done I walked back to my apartment, just a couple of blocks away. Before doing that, I consciously decided not to put my mask on — it was a short walk, and no one was around, and it didn’t feel like such a big deal. It even felt a little transgressive, because I was violating both a legal and a social norm out of my own convenience. Perhaps this is a little sad, but after a year where “walking down a different street while going to the grocery store” counted as a necessary wrinkle to one’s routine, forgive me.
It was a window into a very near future, because as of next Monday, I will have been fully vaccinated for two weeks, a development that theoretically enables me to grab a stranger off the street, and demand they cough in my mouth. I am a little excited about it, I won’t lie. Not the coughing, but the range of possibility: Already my girlfriend and I have made plans to attend a baseball game, and visit our parents for the first time in over a year, and eat indoors with several friends who are also vaccinated, and have some of those friends over for dinner. There is a mental fog lifting right now, where I remember exactly what it is one can do without the array of concerns they might get sick. I don’t expect any grand adjustment period — if anything, I think my social skills have mildly improved in the last year — but I expect it will be somewhat overwhelming.
Yet I do expect to keep wearing masks for a while. Not always on the street, necessarily, but certainly when I go indoors, and definitely on the subway. Given the “mask or not?” debate of the last few weeks, I’ve thought about why and settled on a few answers:
I’m very lazy. I wear glasses, which I have to take off before I put my mask on because if I don’t the glasses will fog up, and if I’m going for a short walk I would rather just have a mask on rather than pause outside the bodega or coffee shop, take my glasses off, put on the mask, put the glasses back on, go inside, do my business, then go back outside, take my glasses off, take the mask off, put my glasses back on, and walk home. Like I said, I’m very lazy.
Social signaling. Vaccination rates across the country aren’t bad, but it’s certainly nowhere near herd immunity, and certainly it’s possible that some people will claim they’re vaccinated when they’re really not. In scenarios where I’m interacting with someone who wants to be vaccinated but might not be (for all the reasons that might be the case, don’t make me spell them out), it strikes me as a very small gesture to just have the mask on so they don’t have to think, “Is this guy vaccinated or does he not give a fuck?”
Because I’m required to. If a store or venue still has a “please wear your mask” sign on, that’s their right. I’m not going to be weird about it, because it’s just walking around a store for five minutes.
Solidarity aka a different kind of social signaling. Over half a million Americans died in the last year; millions more got sick, and some of those millions are still dealing with long term effects. I can’t fully imagine the psychic (and physical) toll that’s taken, but I can sort of imagine. If seeing people with masks on makes them feel better, then what’s the big problem?
There are probably some other reasons that I can’t recollect right now, but which don’t really matter that much because ultimately, I do not think wearing a mask is such a big deal. Fogged glasses, but who cares; a sweaty mouth, but who cares; the mild irritation of wanting to make a short trip and having to pull my mask on beforehand, but who cares. The worst material thing that happened to me during COVID was that I stayed inside for a year, didn’t see my mom for a year, lost my shit every 18 weeks when I went to the grocery store that’s a little further away only to find they didn’t have chickpeas, because I just walked 10 minutes with this sweaty mask on and you’re telling me they don’t have fucking chickpeas????????????? and then walked home in a rage to lie down for 30 minutes. (I also lost my job, but have luckily made up for it with freelancing and unemployment benefits, so I don’t count this as so very bad.) Given the range of outcomes, I think this rates very ideal.
I did not get sick, though I knew many people who did, and I knew other people who lost loved ones, and some of the people who got sick were absolutely waylaid by their symptoms, some of which continued to nag them for months after. This was my animating fear, when thinking “how do I not get COVID”: I really did not want to get COVID. I can’t be more imaginative than that. It might have been fine, because some people were fine, but others — young, without pre-existing conditions, athletic — were not, and as someone who makes his living by “thinking,” the thought of being mentally incapacitated was existentially terrifying. I have written about this before, but in college I was bedridden for nearly an entire month with a form of cognitive paralysis that left me incapable of talking or typing, an experience that I will dryly refer to as “very shitty.” I do not want to return to that state ever again. So I wore my mask, and I used my hand sanitizer, and I avoided seeing people indoors, and I avoided doing much of anything outside my apartment beyond shopping and sometimes drinking.
Now it’s May 2021, and while things are better for a lot of people, it’s still the same for many others. I’d like to be a human being who can place the emotional needs of others before his own, if they’re not too personally inconvenient, and so “continuing to wear a mask here and there” did not seem like a gigantic sacrifice. But apparently this makes me a moralist, or anti-science, or hysterical, or any number of other uncharitable interpretations you might find when skimming the internet. Mind you there are other reasons to continue wearing masks, if you’ve been vaccinated — maybe you’re Asian, and want to hide your face amidst a rising tie of anti-Asian violence; maybe you’re immunocompromised, and still not quite sure how at risk you are even with the vaccine; maybe you just don’t want to get a cold — but all of it is lumped together as the enemy of common sense.
What gets me down about these takes is the forgoing of empathy — the lack of recognition of what a violent, horrible year this has been so many, who do not have the privilege of updating their emotions as quickly as our discourse’s most prolific readers. I know someone who lost both of their parents within the last six months; excuse them for not adopting to our ever-changing standards so quickly. While these anecdotal stories don’t prove much statistically, each one reminds me that — to put it lightly — the year has been very different for all of us. And since it is ultimately not that big of a problem for me, I want to be as maximally accommodating for others as possible, since I don’t know where they’re at, or what they’ve gone through.
I don’t think all of the people writing so insistently about the lack of need for masks are jerks. They’re just used to centering their own perspective, at all costs. Confidence in your lived reality is just how a lot of people think; sometimes, it’s even their career. There’s a Philip K. Dick quote I can’t quite reproduce, and may have even partially invented, about how the inability to imagine other people’s internal worlds is not just a moral failure, but a societal failure. Once we start assuming the worst of each other, that’s the ball game for living in any kind of better world, which is why I tend to be much more pessimistic about Trump’s presidency than some of my “he was just a typical Republican with the mask off” leftist cohort.
Since what we’re talking about is something as simple as “is wearing a mask necessary” (and not something flatly incorrect like “was the election illegitimate,” where to be accommodating is to only open yourself up to a deluge of shit), I don’t have a problem not centering my own needs right now — especially since all I want to do is take a deep breath inside the bodega, which I’ve already mostly done without for the last year. And if you feel the same way, that doing this is really not such a big deal given the half a million dead and millions more sick, then I’d like to say you’re not a moralist or hysterical, either.
Housekeeping, of a different sort
It has recently occurred to me that I should post here more regularly if only to keep my lovely subscribers abreast of my ongoing freelance writing, which has gotten to a nice start in 2021. Many writers do this, and they are smart to do this — a neat way of “building one’s brand” and “reminding people you exist,” for free.
To be honest, this has not appealed to me. Respect to those who make money from it — seriously, respect, it requires a lot of energy and effort that “as a Virgo,” I can only appreciate — but the appeal of Substack was its anti-professionalism, and to see it codify into just another careerist platform for the self-involved is kind of a bummer.
That said, I already tweet, so I’m no better than anyone else. (Well, maybe a little better. But that’s for me to think, and for you to decide.) What can you do? So, in reverse order, here’s a list of stuff I’ve worked on this year that I’m proud of, with some commentary.
In the winter I became semi-obsessed with the Dark Souls franchise, which I had never fully bought into, but then one of the games was on sale and pretty soon I was playing all of them and apologizing to Jen a lot for how angry I sounded when dying to Ornstein and Smough for the 12th time. I tried to approach this one from the vantage point of, “How I can explain the rush of playing these games in a way that might interest outsiders, but also die hards?” I think I got there, but you should let me know.
Could ‘Young Rock’ Be Dwayne Johnson’s ‘Apprentice’? (The New York Times Magazine)
Young Rock is a weird show: It is so clearly laying the groundwork for a future Dwayne Johnson presidential run, but also maybe not because it’s just a TV show and besides, come on, and yet the idea of him being the president seems so possible and depressing that I don’t want to take anything for granted. “That could never happen” is what they said about Trump, too. And here we are! Ha ha ha!
Dawn Richard Will Find a Way to Be Heard (The New York Times)
I think Richard’s catalogue is so rich and rewarding, and she was possibly the most positive person I’ve interviewed despite her backstory containing plenty of demoralizing ups and downs. Simply put, it is crazy that someone who first became famous through a Diddy-backed reality TV show in 2005 is now releasing immaculate solo records on Merge in 2021. We talked a lot about her ambivalence toward the phrases “ambitious” and “underrated,” critical buzz words that come off as backhanded compliments if you’re an artist. Like imagine you put months of sweat and effort into producing this incredible collection of songs that don’t sound like anything else, and some asshole calls it “conceptually busy.” Terrible! I know critics are doing a job, but they can be a little more original.
Where Even O.J. Simpson Can Judge You (The New York Times Magazine)
O.J.’s lawyer told me he sent this to O.J. I still don’t know what to think about that.
Kevin Shields on My Bloody Valentine’s Return: Time Is ‘More Precious’ (The New York Times)
I mean, it’s My Bloody Valentine. I used sit in my college dorm room, rip a bong, and fall asleep with Loveless blasting off my speakers. Some things transgress professionalism and enter that realm of “holy shit holy shit holy shit,” which made it so disarming to find how… normal Shields was. He is a rare and real music genius, and doesn’t carry himself that way at all. Inspiring, for us non-geniuses.
Beverly Glenn-Copeland’s New Age Revival (The New York Times Magazine)
I hope to live my life with an ounce of the grace and charity that Glenn exemplifies in his music and personal conduct.
I didn’t love this book but found it compelling and intense. Inasmuch as a memoir can put you in someone else’s shoes, he did that.
Foo Fighters Wanted to Rule Rock. 25 Years Later, They’re Still Roaring. (The New York Times)
Talking to Dave Grohl for several hours made me wonder if the secret to life is being focused and positive and optimistic and sociable and kind, despite all the roadblocks to feeling otherwise. Also something to think about, for those of us who are not millionaire rock stars.